Colour My World

Since the return of the LP, which by the way, continues unabated despite the many predictions that this is a fad that’s gonna wither sooner than later, colored vinyl has emerged as a premium product, usually going for many dollars more than the plain black. If you are susceptible to such nonsense, then it’s boom times for LPs in every hue under the rainbow. Clearly someone in my lineage had relations with a fish because if it’s colored and flashy—think jigs, spinners, lures—then I’m there, grinning like a child and opening my wallet like a ridiculous adult.

A teal Saxophone Colossus? A maroon Marquee Moon? A blue splatter Kind of Blue? That last one, advertised on the Newbury Comics website ,started me thinking: would a reputable chain like Newbury Comics be selling LPs, of super well-known titles, that were cut from CDs or some other compromised source that cost anywhere from $15.99 to $39.99? The return of LP sales ($$$) has of course brought out the crooks, who if you look on at the mushrooming number of versions of famous records whose provenance is listed as “unknown,” seem to be doing very well. As an obvious example, and because I’ve been listening to lots of Bowie since he died, there are 46 “unknown” versions of Ziggy Stardust out there at the moment. Knowing this I decided to dig around a bit, be a reporter, make sure Newbury’s psychedelic explosion was all legit.

It didn’t take long to confirm that Newbury is using the “best sources available,” (now THERE’S a variable phrase). An old friend at Concord Records (which now owns the Fantasy catalog) confirmed that the orange vinyl Steamin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet was indeed from official source material. Same goes for the Kind of Blue. The response from Sony/Legacy, that was obtained from the person in charge of manufacturing, read in part, “We pressed the colored vinyl version for Newbury at Noiseland, using the parts for the active Legacy version 88697680571.” Finally, when I saw a clear vinyl pressing of the crown jewel in the ECM crown, Keith Jarrett’s landmark Köln Concert, I knew it had to be real. No way that ECM founder and inspirational force Manfred Eicher is allowing a bootlegged version of this unquestioned desert island disc out on the market.

The response from friends at ECM confirmed this: “We did clear vinyl of both Köln Concert and Return To Forever for Newbury Comics. Both were manufactured for us in Germany with Munich’s supervision and then imported for Newbury.”

After checking with the labels, and finding out that no malfeasance or trickery was involved, I called Newbury and spoke to senior buyer, Carl Mello, who told me the entire colored vinyl program is the brainchild of Mike Dreese, one of the founder/owners of Newbury. The chain, based in Boston, started releasing colored 180-gram LPs in 2013 and has now released or announced over 220 titles.

“Nine times out of ten what will happen is they’re going back in to press up some black vinyl,” Mello said, “and we say, hey, can you throw some color pellets in there, this color or that color and hop on your production? So it’s done using all the same info as the standard version.

“[As far as sources] We’re using whatever the label is currently using, and that varies wildly. Some pressings sound a million times better than others. For instance we’ve done a couple of Hendrix pieces with another on the way and the Hendrix estate is very finicky about having the best-sounding material that they can put out there, so those things are done amazingly well. Where there might be an indie title, where they’re pressing up 300, where fidelity isn’t the selling point of the release, it’s just something that’s hot and lo-fi and there are things like that they will come out. So there’s a great variety in terms of the listening experience I would imagine.”

Mello, who’s worked at Newbury since 2007 and has been adding to his own collection since the late '70s, says that while the chain has released over 200 titles, they’ve asked labels about re-issuing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 titles, so there will be colored vinyl to come from Newbury for quite some time. So far it's a nice mix of old and new jazz and rock titles from Modest Mouse and John Coltrane to Outkast and John Lee Hooker. The process is based on patience.

“It’s a waiting game and some of the artists have right of refusal so it’s all over the place depending in the contract.”

As Mello noted, some titles sound better than others. Having spent quality listening time with both the Newbury Kind of Blue, and the red Bordeaux-tinted Marquee Moon, neither are outstanding soundwise. While gorgeous to look at, the Newbury Kind of Blue, which is just the latest entry in the crowded field of the world’s most reissued record, does not have the life and presence of several earlier pressings including Columbia LP reissues from 1971, 1986, and the recent Mobile Fidelity 45 RPM set, but is the equal of the blue vinyl that came with the official 2008 50th anniversary boxed set.

As for Marquee Moon, the sound is not the equal of my cherished, well-worn original pressing but then that may be nostalgia talking. Audiophiles, are these good enough to be the reference copy in your collection? No, but as a second or third play copy they ain’t bad. Most of the runs are around 1000 pieces so the series may eventually have some collector's appeal and value as well. Nothing quite like those “doomed” brick and mortar stores thinking fast.

Anton's picture

I like the novelty and I get to help keep a pressing alive for an artist I like.

"Third play" is a completely apt term!

Thanks for the story!

jimtavegia's picture

Anything in this noise-filled world of ours to get people to stop talking for 30 minutes, and just sit quietly and listen has to be the product of the year. The world needs more silence. The talking it out of control.

CarterBro's picture

I bought Bon Iver's self titled album from Newberry--the reviews on Acoustic Sounds of the main pressing complained of surface noise. The Newberry pressing was nice and quiet. My other experience was less awesome--the first Velvet Underground album had bad distortion on Nico's vocals. :(

dalethorn's picture

Nico was on the first Velvet Underground album?

CarterBro's picture

May not have been the first--thought it was. the one with banana was the one I got from Newbury had the distorted Nico vocals

dalethorn's picture

The first I remember after White Light etc. (may have been an EP) was the VU, before Nico. On that album the drummer Moe sang After Hours, and some people thought that was Nico.

Glotz's picture

Thanks for watching out for consumers, and keeping vinyl sacred!

DFacobbre's picture

To my utter surprise, this a dead quiet pressing